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Tom Ross: Family includes children in outdoor adventures

North Fork of the Elk River is a living classroom with fish, wildflowers

If you have any doubts about Routt County’s status as one of the top 10 places in America to raise children, all you have to do to erase them is check in this week with Maria and Brad Wright of Steamboat Springs. We ran into the Wrights briefly Sunday on the North Fork of the Elk River, and just the sight of them put a smile on our faces. They might be the ultimate young outdoor family.

Picture a family of four with two toddlers. Mom and Dad are wearing Gore-Tex hip boots and carrying high-quality fly rods. It’s Mom’s turn to fish unfettered, so Dad is wearing one of those big child-carrier backpacks that appears to have its own roof. Inside is 1-year-old Evan, who, apparently, has been learning to fly fish since before he could walk. At the same time, Brad is pushing what appears to be a four-wheel-drive stroller down a rocky Jeep road. Inside is Audrey, 3. When he spots some pocket water on the North Fork that promises to hold fat brook trout, Brad lifts Audrey out of her backcountry stroller and balances her on a hip while he walks through waist deep wildflowers to reach the stream.

Audrey already has caught her trout, Maria points out. The toddler always catches the first trout of every family fishing expedition. Now, Audrey’s little pink spinning rod juts out of Maria’s fanny pack. The Wright family has stories to tell that only could be surpassed by one of those families in a Disney movie set in Alaska. Already this summer they watched a pair of sandhill cranes protecting a nest. They came upon a trembling baby elk calf in the tall grass of California Park. And they spied a Great Horned owl nesting in a tall cottonwood.

Adults call this valley paradise. For children, it’s even better. The North Fork of the Elk is a giant biology classroom with lessons to offer children of all ages.

The Routt Divide Blowdown leveled thousands of acres of evergreen forests in October 1997, and the valley of the North Fork was heavily affected. We drove the pickup into the area a year later and were stunned to see how the landscape had been changed by dead trees stacked upon one another like pickup sticks.

Now, it has changed again.

Since 1997, many of the felled trees have been harvested and removed from the area. Then, after several years of drought, the Hinman Fire swept through the area in the summer of 2002.

What you see today is a complex mix of standing forests that were blackened by the fire, pockets of untouched trees and logged blowdown areas that also were burned over.

The blackened forests of the North Fork are being transformed in the summer of 2004 by vast fields of wildflowers. Predictably, the lavender blossoms of fireweed dominate, but they are set off by large patches of yellow arnica and pale blue harebells. There even are wild roses blooming next to charred old stumps.

Indian paintrush is visible only in scattered locations, but where it is found, the blossoms are unusually large.

We may be in the midst of an enduring drought, but the cold fronts that brought rain to Routt County in late June, and the monsoon flow that began building last week have produced lush vegetation. There are places where the fire burned right down to the river bank, claiming the box elders. In other places, the streamside vegetation is intact.

In some places, it appears the flames were hot enough to cook the soil and kill the microorganisms that give it life. But in most places, lush vegetation binds the soil and wards off erosion. Water quality appears to be outstanding.

The river has a strong flow this summer, and the water is cold enough to suggest that it was snow only yesterday.

The Wright family may not appreciate me giving you directions to paradise. But the recovery of the plant communities along the North Fork and the lessons they offer about the life cycle of the forest are too valuable to be missed.

Drive northwest out of Steamboat on County Road 129 for 24 miles just past Clark. Turn right on C.R. 64 (Seedhouse Road) and continue another eight miles until you cross a bridge over the Elk river. Just a half-mile beyond the bridge, look for a left turn on Forest Road 433, which immediately traverses and climbs a ridge.

The road is rough and narrow at times. Perhaps you should not go there in your Lexus. Drive another seven miles as Forest Road 433 drops fairly steeply over the other side of the ridge — don’t be tempted by several available turnoffs. When you come to another bridge over the river, you will be gazing down on the North Fork. If you enjoy wildflowers, you may wish you had brought an extra memory card for the camera.


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